Water equity issues receiving increased attention in Great Lakes states

Heather Taylor-Miesle is on a mission to ensure that all people have access to safe, affordable tap water — because she knows the hardship of living without it.

Taylor-Miesle grew up in Appalachia, one of the most disadvantaged regions in the United States, and the water in her family’s home often was unsafe to drink. They relied on bottled water.

“That was part of the culture, and we accepted it as reality when I was a kid,” she said.

Now, as executive director of the Ohio Environmental Council, Taylor-Miesle leads a team of advocates working to increase access to safe, affordable water in the state. Because clean water is essential to life, she believes access to it is a human rights issue.

Heather Taylor-Miesle

Heather Taylor-Miesle

“Every man, woman and child has a right to safe, affordable drinking water,” Taylor-Miesle said. “We need to figure out how to make that happen.”

The Ohio Environmental Council is one of about two dozen organizations that receive funding from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation to work on water equity issues in the Great Lakes region. Mott has a two-pronged goal for the work: ensure universal access to safe, affordable water while maintaining the financial health of water utilities.

Water equity issues are a relatively new focus for Mott and many of the organizations the Foundation supports. Mott has funded efforts to protect Great Lakes ecosystems since the late 1980s, granting more than $130 million for the work.

In response to Flint’s water crisis, Mott expanded its freshwater grantmaking portfolio in 2016 to include work on water equity issues in Great Lakes states. The move was a natural progression, said Tim Eder, an Environment program officer who helps manage the Foundation’s freshwater grantmaking.

“Our grantees have addressed toxins, fish and wildlife issues, water diversions and invasive species, and they’ve made significant progress in some areas,” Eder said. “But we learned from the Flint water crisis that we needed to put more emphasis on drinking water and protecting water from its source to the tap.”

Water crises are common in Great Lakes communities, despite the region’s abundant freshwater. The lakes contain 21% of all available surface freshwater on the planet and provide drinking water for 48 million people in the U.S. and Canada. Yet hundreds of thousands of people in the region can’t afford the cost of tap water, or they can’t drink the water because it contains lead, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (known as PFAS, the so-called forever chemicals), or other contaminants.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of people in Great Lakes cities lived without water because they couldn’t afford to pay for it, and their service was shut off. Many cities and states placed moratoriums on water shutoffs during the pandemic, but the shutoffs have resumed in some communities.

Sheyda Esnaashari

Sheyda Esnaashari

Sheyda Esnaashari, drinking water program manager for the River Network, which Mott supports, said COVID-19 demonstrated that running water is essential for all households — for drinking, cooking and personal hygiene.

“The pandemic has provided additional momentum for the fight to provide safe and affordable water for all,” Esnaashari said. “Water is essential to public health. Many people have been making that case for years, but it resonated more during the pandemic.”

In April, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly approved a $35 billion plan to upgrade the nation’s water infrastructure and reduce pollution. That plan is awaiting action in the House of Representatives.

President Biden’s proposed $1.7 trillion stimulus package seeks additional funding for water infrastructure upgrades, but it faces a challenge in the Senate. Republican senators have proposed a smaller, $928 billion plan.

Esnaashari said she is encouraged by the increased focus on water equity at the local, state and federal levels.

“I believe we’ll be in a better place down the road — a world where people are not living without water, and they’re not being poisoned by their drinking water,” she said.

Mott and its grantees are focused on raising awareness and educating the public and policymakers about the need for a comprehensive approach to water equity, one that addresses the interrelated issues of water safety, affordability and infrastructure upgrades. Several states have acted recently, including:

  • Michigan passed the nation’s toughest standard for lead and copper in drinking water, mandated the removal of all lead service lines over the next two decades and approved the nation’s first drinking water standards for PFAS compounds.
  • Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine proposed up to $1 billion over 10 years for H2Ohio, a comprehensive plan to reduce harmful algal blooms, improve wastewater infrastructure and prevent lead contamination. To date, Ohio lawmakers have approved more than $170 million for the initiative.
  • Minnesota lawmakers approved a $302 million plan to upgrade water infrastructure, safeguard communities from flooding, and protect rivers and lakes from pollution.
  • Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers has proposed tougher regulations on agricultural operations that contribute to nitrate contamination of groundwater. He also increased funding to protect water quality.

Taylor-Miesle said it’s critical that policymakers address the three major elements of water equity: safety, affordability and infrastructure improvements.

“If you don’t address all three issues, anything you do will be a mere Band-Aid,” she said.

Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, a longtime Mott grantee, said the pandemic and recent water crises in Toledo, Flint and elsewhere were a collective wakeup call for his organization.

Joel Brammeier

Joel Brammeier

“It was a wakeup call to an injustice,” he said. “It’s an injustice to have unsafe water in your home — or no water all.”

The focus on water equity also is transforming the community of advocacy groups that works on Great Lakes issues, Brammeier said. More are working on drinking water issues, and large, regional organizations like the Alliance are establishing relationships with smaller, community-based groups that have been leading efforts to end water shutoffs and address environmental justice issues.

“This could bring new strength and energy to the Great Lakes movement,” Brammeier said. “Having clean water in the Great Lakes isn’t enough. The Great Lakes region has more people living close to freshwater than anyplace [else] in the world. We need to make sure they all have access to safe, affordable water at the tap.”

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